(with Gary Katz)
Not long ago, Gary Katz and I visited the William Thorsen House in Berkeley, CA. Built in 1909—one year after the Gamble House—the Thorsen House represents the “last of the large and elaborate wooden houses designed by Greene and Greene,” (Edward Bosley), for which Randall Makinson, in his book Greene & Greene: Architecture as a Fine Art, coined the term, “Ultimate Bungalows.”
At the turn of the 20th century, bungalow homes were so common throughout the country that companies like Sears sold bungalow kit homes with everything included—from the tapered columns to the leaded glass cabinet doors. But Henry and Charles Greene took the form to a new height, building several expansive homes for wealthy industrialist clients, including: the Blacker House (1907-1909), the Gamble House (1907-1909), the Pratt House (1908-1911) and the Thorsen House (1908-1910).
As Gary mentioned in his earlier article about Frank Lloyd Wright and Falling Water, architects of the period had recognized the value of horizontal lines in architectural composition as opposed to the vertical lines popular during the heyday of the Victorian period. Architects after the turn of the 20th century focused on designs for comfortable, natural homes that fit—rather than fought—with the environment.
Charles Robert Ashbee, a central figure in the British Arts & Crafts movement, toured America in 1908-1909 and noted that Charles Greene’s work was: “beautiful; among the best there is in this country. Like Lloyd Wright the spell of Japan is upon him, like Lloyd Wright he feels the beauty and makes magic out of the horizontal line, but there is in his work more tenderness, more subtlety, more self-effacement than in Wright’s work, and it is more refined and has more repose” (Bosley, Greene & Greene, p. 140).
And no single word better describes the Thorsen house than “repose.”
Ironically, the Thorsen house has stronger vertical lines than any of the Greene’s other Ultimate Bungalows, and that’s because it was designed and built in Berkeley, CA, on a hill, unlike the Greene & Green homes in Pasadena, which were placed on mostly level ground with a horizontal plan. But the Thorsen’s multi-level home sits on a unique corner property, and has an L -shaped plan that climbs up the hill gently, masking it’s size—over 9,000 sq. ft.
Timbered rafter tails with long overhangs and strongly cantilevered porches are distinctive features, but instead of sleeping porches—which the Greenes included on Southern California homes—this colder-climate house was designed with uncovered balconies, though the balconies have since been covered and turned into sleeping areas by the current owners and residents: since 1942, the home has been owned and cared for by the Sigma Phi Society of California.
We were early for our appointment the morning we visited, so Gary and I took our time exploring the front of the house. There are many features that are common to Greene and Greene homes, like the cloud lift design in the window muntins (you’ll see more of that when we go inside for the videos).
|A similar pattern is repeated in the basement windows.|
|The milk delivery door repeats a theme common to the Greenes and to Frank Lloyd Wright—long horizontal head casings.|
|A small pathway provides access to the back yard. The fraternity has plans for a new garden wall, which will protect their privacy more, but I’m sure they’ll be saving this gate.|
I caught Gary on his hands and knees taking a picture of the full-sailed ship in this panel (see photo, left). John Thorsen, William’s father, was born in Norway; although he earned his fortune in the Michigan lumber industry, he always had a close connection to the sea. William shared the same interest; in fact, as we later learned from our tour guide, features in the dining room and living room repeat the same nautical schemes.
Approaching the front steps, we first passed through an inspired iron archway.
|Deep steps with low risers lead to the entry door.|
|The door is decorated with a gnarled grapevine pattern. Vines also form the primary imagery common throughout the Thorsen home. I’ll show you more of that once we get inside the house.|
Before we go inside, I thought all the carpenters reading this article would appreciate seeing the shape the house is in today, and learning a bit about the type of work required to maintain the home. These folks welcome the help of experienced volunteers!
The Greene brothers used Peter Hall as the contractor on this home, just as they had on all of their other Ultimate Bungalows. Hall hired William Isaac Ott to supervise the job, and the workmanship is impeccable. Most of the maintenance issues Gary and I saw could have been avoided if the original carpenters had used different techniques, or if they had some of the great materials we have today—which is a good lesson: we all have something to learn!
|I liked this trellis, a lot. In fact, I might make one for my house. If only the wood had been maintained—a coat of oil every few years might have killed the plants, but it would have saved the trellis.|
|Here’s what remains of the side yard fence—at least the bottom rail. Notice how the fencing was mortised into the rail! What a job of joinery. And built to last.|
Too bad it rains so much up here—moisture got trapped in the mortises, rotting out the tongues. Even though the carpenters tried to avoid that problem by drilling drainage holes in the bottom of each mortise, that wasn’t enough to save the fencing. Maybe a few more holes would have done the trick. I bet if they had had a Domino….
Entry & Living Room
Greene and Greene homes always contain a symbolic thread or device that ties one room to the next: lotuses are a symbolic device in the Blacker house; the “tree of life” is a primary device in the Gamble house, from the front doors to the living room inglenook; and rose and grapevines serve a similar purpose in the Thorsen home. They decorate the frieze in the living room and the frieze in the dining room.
The frieze is broken by intriguing U-shaped brackets, which are secured to the top rail of the paneling with multi-stepped pins. The pins in the corners rest on both walls, while the rose vine continues all the way around the room.
If I were forced to compare them all, I’d say the living room probably contains the most interesting design features in the home. Watch this video, and you’ll see what I mean:
Like the main stair in the Gamble house, the Thorsen stair is an eye-catcher, but it is also much different than any other stairway I’ve seen in a Greene and Greene home.
|The Thorsen newel posts are the real focal point of this stair; the railing, though it’s massive, and reflects the lift design, is almost secondary.|
If any of you have visited the Gamble House, you probably remember the exaggerated finger joints in the risers. The Greenes repeated the same detail in the Thorsen stair.
• • •
There are several features in the dining room that are worth noting. I’ll start with the fireplace. Mahogany pilasters—cut with reversed pillows or steps—flank the tile surround and support a simple mantelshelf with finger joints at the corners. The wall paneling is also deceptively simple: single panels—which are both tall and wide—frame the fireplace and are divided only above the mantelpiece, in a plumb line with the pilasters below. Small pillowed keys are mortised into the joint between the stiles and rails. A small square molding captures each of the panels; additional interior “stiles,” cut with a lift design, also flank the low panel above the mantelshelf.
The tiles in the fireplace surround are decorated with a periwinkle motif. If the original furniture were still in the house, we’d be able to see that same design repeated through delicate inlays in the chair backs and the dining table. If you want to see want I mean, check out Edward Bosley’s book: Greene & Greene.
Like the living room, the dining room carries the same nautical theme, and is meant to resemble the bow of a ship. In fact, the bay window is bowed over the front of the house. The crown molding—it must be called that even though it’s a simple build-up of flat moldings with eased edges—is broken at every corner by a multi-stepped “figurehead” pendent, which also resembles the bow of a ship.
|But the real glory-piece in the dining room is the china cabinet!|
|Supported by a thick two-knuckled finger-joint, and stepped brackets that extend back into the wall, this piece is a real keeper.|
To get a really good look at this cabinet, watch the video!
Nowhere is deferred maintenance more obvious than in the back yard, where the lower sun deck is supported by temporary shoring (see photo, right). The job of rebuilding the bridge and deck will be a costly one. But the art and craft of the home is still alive, even among the recently installed posts and pads. The Greene brothers’ palette of materials included wood, stone, brick, concrete, brass, copper, and hand-forged steel. Rusted collar straps, tightened with driven wedges, accentuate the strength and repose of the Thorsen home.
GREAT article, Jesse!! You give awesome tour. Thanks for discovering this house and working so hard on this story. It’s not often we’re able to get inside a Greene & Greene home with so much camera gear and no one asking “How long are you going to be here?”
quality talks quietly and speaks volumes
WOW Fantastic tour! Thanks
Thanks for the great tour, guys. It is not often we get to see such detail in these amazing homes. Glad the frat. bros. and volunteers are able to keep up the major maintenance. Wish I lived closer so I could be one of the volunteers honing my interest in Green & Green by preserving a real one and finding even more details to bring into my own furniture designs.
The Dovetail Joint
Excellent article love the detail of that front door. And the trim work. Thanks for taking the time to do this article!
that’s a great house. wow.
but what i really appreciated was the clear shots of where it didn’t work or wasn’t maintained well. it’s hard to appreciate the upside without understanding the downside.
i do big pinned finger joints in cedar deck stairs just like that – hadn’t even been thinking of it as a Greene & Greene rip off but of course it is. Next time i’ll provide a footnote ;)
1).”You are limiting yourself again”, from my grandfather,Gustav K.
2).Always give more of yourself on the job. You’ll never go hungry.
3).You are not a carpenter/assembler, YOU are a craftsman.
We have a choice as to how much we leave of our selves on the job. Lumber has been around for shelter since before Christ. That joint you attribute to Greene & Greene has been done long before them.
I’m sure more of you would know more accuratly…but when I took the Gamble House tour a year ago. The Docent told us those scarf joints have been around in timber framing forever. The Greene’s had used them because they are structural as well as decorative. The docent also said that they originate from old ship building joints, where the keys would be used to “tighten” the connection when water would start to penetrate, a sailor would tap thoses keys in with a large mallet. The Keys are tapered and act like corks. Forcing that joint together. I thought that was really cool.
Thank you for the tour. Just thinking, if this world were not 180 degree from yesteryear what we see here, how impeccable workmanship would be more then just in photos.
Now that is the sort of thing that no other publication does, and TIC does with excellence.
Thank you. It’s nice to do what you love. Even better when other people love it, too.
Awesome tour. stimulates the imagination on how carpenters patiently created this masterpiece home.
Thanks for the article. I like the format with all the videos. It would be cool to see these video tours of other historic houses as a semi regular feature in TIC.
I especially liked those forged and wedged straps as a decorative contrast to the wood. Also it’s humbling to see what the lack of maintenance can do to even the finest work.
I agree! We did a story on Falling Water, too, one of my favorites. Hopefully other readers will catch the fever and want to tour and write about their favorite historic homes, too. I travel a LOT for Roadshows, so it’s not too tough for me to schedule a video shoot with an author. That’s exactly what Jesse and i did. We shot that video the day after a Roadshow in the Bay Area last year. Jesse read up on the house and did a great job.
I agree!! I would love to do another one :D! it was really fun getting a chance to do a story like this. I learned A LOT about everything from History, G&G design/ contruction, and preventive maintainance.
Wow, what a great house and great craftsmanship! Thanks for the tour.
Interesting joinery on the side yard fence. I’m making a rail for a Civil War recruitment canter in NY soon that will have this type of mortice/tenon joint. I plan to cut the mortice all the way through the bottom rail so it will drain.
very cool stuff here!
Thank you all for the comments! The Thorsen house was a really treat to visit, especially for me. For years I have seen this house from the outside. I really didnt know that you can just go up and knock and the brothers from Sigma Phi gladly let you in and give you a tour. Its also part of their stewardship. They do not occupy those rooms as to preserve it.
When we first walked in Gary and I both were completely blown away. I was not expecting it to be SO well maintained. The level of detail in the craftsmanship was over whelming to say the least! I really was caught for words…
A HUGE Thank you to Gary Katz for all the help and work on this article. Also to the Sigma Phi Brothers for letting us have as much time as we wanted and graciously opening up this architectural gem to us to view as well as shoot. A Thank you To ZACK for the informational Tour. Lots of little design details would be missed if you hadn’t of show us. Thank you
Quality is enduring, this place will go down in history and always be relevant, every where you look you see attention to detail and quality.
Such a great tour thanks.
Thanks, good to see such places. I’ve toured the Gamble house, really beautifully maintained. Keep up the good work.
Thank you, for showing real residential architecture. Hope to see more like this in the future.
An opportunity to help restore a Greene & Greene home? Sign me up.
Awesome job on the videos and pictures. The detail is amazing and how they tied everything together but made every room unique. One day I hope to visit one of their homes. Keep up the articles.
Thanks Jesse and gary for a really great piece on Arts and Crafts wonderfulness. Many years ago I was in the LA area interviewing with Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I took the opportunity to tour the Gamble house and was really struck by those massive keyed scarf joints. Although that type of joint has been around probably since Noah, Greene & Greene really made them into a showpiece that was also functional.
Strength, beauty AND simplicity all wrapped up into one fantastic style.
How about octagon houses next Gary? There is a nice example here in Danbury, although it is divided into apartments and one across the street from my in-laws in Stillwater, NY (near Saratoga) that’s masonry.
Thanks again for a great tour.
Yeoman’s work on this first-rate tour — thanks for the effort.
I have to admit to being puzzled by the building failures you’ve mentioned and illustrated. Clearly, this structure was built by a team of craftsman who had the resources to do an exceptional job; the detailing is not indicative of cut-corner building.
Despite this sophistication, the problem areas seem to be a result of some pretty basic errors. In particular, flashing exposed beams or rafters could easily have been accomplished with the resources available at the time of construction, yet they were apparently left bare.
Any idea why the builders made such simple oversights?
I would venture to say that at the time this structure was built, they were not the beneficiaries of epoxies and polyurethanes to protect the wood. They didn’t have butyl flashing and such either. I think they probably thought of capping the ridge beams with copper, but it probably took away from the organic feel of the natural timber. Just a guess.
Wow, they certainly don’t make them like that anymore. I can only imagine what was required, and the amount of time needed with the tools and processes available, to make that wonderful house.
Great article. It’s nice to see the legacy of craftsmen in past eras still enjoyed and admired.
Thanks Jesse and Gary for this great post and the wonderful video tour. It’s always a pleasure for us to show the house to other admirers of the Greenes’ work. One small item I’d like to correct though is about the glass porch that encloses the south balcony – this was actually commissioned by Mrs. Thorsen from Charles Greene in the early 20’s. She wanted a sun porch off her bedroom like the one her sister Nellie Blacker had built to enclose the balcony off her own bedroom at the Blacker House.
Charles, by then practicing on his own and handling the firm’s N. California clients, did a beautiful design (no surprise there), although some think that the house would look better without it. Sigma Phi however has chosen to retain the alteration as part of the restoration of the house, since it is work by one of the brothers, and a work of art in its own right.
Sigma Phi did enclose the second floor level of the timber bridge (between the house and the garage) in the late 40’s, but reversed the change in 1978.
As for the clothes yard fence, the real vulnerability that led to it failing was not the fence slat mortises, but rather that the ends of the top and bottom beams were enclosed in pockets in the brick piers – that’s where the rot began that eventually brought this fence down (the slats and their mortises were fine). Our research has found that one small section of fencing at the Gamble House is all that remains of the original fences at the ultimate bungalows.
Nice tour of my grandparents house. William Randolph and Caroline Mae Canfield Thorsen were as remarkable as the house they left to Uncle Eric.
The Thorsen’s had two adoptive sons. John Eric and Hubert Randolph Thorsen.
Hubert was my father.
What a wonderful story with photos and video. In all, it makes for a great tour. A few years ago I was allowed to visit the house and photograph much. On the second floor I desired to pull out a linen storage drawer. I approached a brother and asked if he would permit me to do so. My intent, I said, was to record in photos how the drawer was constructed — dovetail joints or not.
The brother looked at me for what seemed a long time with an odd look on his face. Eventually he said, “You want to take pictures of a 100 year-old drawer?” Then slowly putting his hand on my shoulder continued, “You go right ahead. Knock yourself out … just don’t drop it.”
I could only imagine what he told the others about a lamentable old man who was cuckoo over drawer joints.
Of all the G&G houses I’ve visited, this may be the most beautiful. Actually, that’s hard to figure.
The problem is I don’t know what it is. The owner ( Louis Bill) told me when they needed to expand the home they would cut the roof off and add on to the house. My home has a lot of wainscoting around the kitchen, in the small dining room and on the ceiling in the upstairs. I found a board that had the measurements for the length of the kitchen cuts.
I would think their was an original blueprint for my home but a have been unable to find information about my home. From the front porch too the left is a parlor room with curtains as a door. coming from the porch straight is the living room. the second door is a small bedroom with doors droim the parlor room to the kitchen.
From the living room to the left after the little room is the steps to go upstairs to the second floor. the dining room is after the living room. To the left is the kitchen that has a door to go to the basement and one goes to the back porch ( enclosed in the early years of the home) . And finally the bathroom ( which is a part of the inclosed porch which all the plumbing is going to). Upstairs to the right is an attic door between the 16 inch center 2×4, left is the handrail going the length of the room only enough room about 4 feet to walk and turn. the little room has the chimney and a doorway to the second room. the second room is similar layout
to the parlor room dimensions. the first room is the dimension of the little room down stairs.
Could you look up and tell me what my house is and a style. I have my abstract and my family has owned this house since the 70’s. and Louis bills family owned it since its was built. Note he told me that it didn’t have a basement but his father dug out the basement and but the ledges that hold the foundation square.